Housing quango director says ‘live conversation’ is underway about bringing in energy efficiency rules

Homes England is considering bringing in tough new sustainability standards for the homes produced by its partners or on its land, Housing Today can reveal.

The possibility of new stretching standards is being considered as part of a major review of the housing quango being conducted by its new chairman, former Argent boss Peter Freeman.

Stephen Kinsella Homes England_Headshot

In an exclusive interview, Stephen Kinsella (pictured), the agency’s chief land and development officer, told Housing Today there was a “live conversation” about whether the agency needed to ask development partners to produce homes to higher environmental standards than those called for by building regulations.

>> Interview with Stephen Kinsella: ‘These are natural conversations to have’

The comments come after the government said at the start of the year that it wanted all new-build housing to be “zero carbon ready” by 2025 – requiring big improvements in fabric efficiency and cutting homes off from mains gas.

Freeman said in an interview last month that “net zero” was one of 10 priorities he had identified for the agency during the course of the review so far.

His review was launched in the wake of the shock departure of chief executive Nick Walkley in January, following rumours of disagreements between Walkley and the secretary of state, Robert Jenrick.

Kinsella said: “We currently require builders to build in accordance with regulations. The question is, do we set higher standards to show leadership, and more importantly to allow the industry to understand and learn before they need to deliver the new requirements on all their sites?

“We’re having a conversation at the moment […] we haven’t landed that yet as part of the strategic plan refresh. It’s part of the conversation with government around how we support the industry.

“It’s really important that we aren’t just able to deliver higher standards but we are also able to deliver 300,000 homes at higher standards, and every player in the housebuilding sector is able to deliver it.”

Inholm Urban Splash

Urban Splash’s Inholm project is part of Homes England’s Northstow development

Kinsella said the agency was also considering imposing higher standards, beyond those required by building regulations or planning, in other areas. He said the conversation included “how the agency does more in cross-cutting areas – I would include net zero, biodiversity, design, modern methods of construction”.

If the agency did decide to go down that route, he said, not only would it start to require higher build standards on its land holding, but that also “our programmes will need to incorporate them”.

From this year Homes England has started requiring strategic partners in its affordable housing programme to produce 25% of new homes using MMC, however, it currently only requires homes it funds to meet the usual regulatory standards for energy efficiency.

During the run-up to the previous “zero carbon” target for new-build housing in 2016, which was ditched by the coalition in 2015, Homes England, then operating as the Homes and Communities Agency, required partners to meet environmental standards above and beyond those required by law.

Despite the potential change in direction, Kinsella said the industry should not expect a huge shift in Homes England’s strategy following the review. He said Freeman had been “really impressed” with the agency’s performance and  people should be “careful not to overstate” the significance of the review.

He said the outcome will be finalised in the autumn. The body had agreed with government that the review will see the agency update its strategic plan, formed when the body was re-branded as Homes England in 2018. The outcome is to be agreed with the Treasury as part of the planned three-year spending review due in the autumn.

Allison Whittington, head of housing at housing insurance provider Zurich said she “strongly welcomed” the idea of tougher standards. However, she said the plan did not go far enough and “risks creating a two tier system”, calling instead for “minimum resilience” standards for all new homes to protect them from the impacts of climate change.

She said: “With the unknown impact of climate change on the built environment, minimum resilience standards will ensure greater levels of protection are provided as a matter of course.”